Aaron Fountain says that we tend to think of early civil rights activists as marching peacefully in the South and rioting in the North.
But Fountain, a Ph.D. student who is the African American Cultural Heritage Fellow at the Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS), hopes that the unfolding of the Cleveland Civil Rights Trail will help paint a fuller picture. The CRS-led project, which is the North’s first civil rights trail, will publicize the city’s hard, dangerous, and mostly peaceful struggle for justice for Black Americans in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
So far, three engraved historical markers have already been erected on important local civil rights sites, and four more sites have been announced. CRS plans to announce an eighth site this month in honor of Black History Month, with two more announcements to come later this year. All the sites are nominated by CRS and approved by the Ohio History Connection.
The trail commemorates the deadly 1966 Hough uprising but also honors churches, a school, a neighborhood, and the election of the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city. So far, markers have been placed as far west as downtown Cleveland and as far east as the Ludlow neighborhood.
The trail is not intended to be a specific route for drivers or pedestrians but is instead a newly unified collection of sites that tell a story both individually and as a group. The markers are meant to lift local civil rights struggles out of the history books and publicize them for passersby and visitors today and tomorrow. “It’s taking esoteric knowledge and making it more publicly accessible,” said Fountain.
Preserving and sharing stories
Through his work at CRS, Fountain has contributed to the trail and its website by interviewing many leaders and followers about the movement’s campaigns, sermons, protests, boycotts, lawsuits, and other efforts. “It’s sad that some of the people I interviewed are in their 90s,” he said, “and I’m the first person who’s interviewed them.”
You might expect a restoration group to focus on buildings, and CRS is in fact helping to shore up the exterior of one of the trail’s sites, the 101-year-old Cory United Methodist Church. But CRS also preserves stories.
Starting in 2018, the society has spent or committed about $256,000 for the trail so far, counting the markers, dedication ceremonies, and a funded year of Fountain’s research. The society has raised nearly all that money from outside sources, such as the National Park Service, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Cleveland Browns, other organizations, and individuals. CRS continues to spend and raise money on the project.
The trail markers are a subset of some 1,750 plaques in a statewide program. The trail’s first 10 markers, which CRS hopes to complete by the end of 2025, are coming at no cost to the neighborhoods or institutions recognized.
Locals willing to pay for an additional marker in Cleveland or an inner suburb may request one, subject to approval by CRS and the Ohio History Connection. The cost is $3,585 or more, plus shipping and installation.
To commemorate Black History Month and share more stories with the public, CRS will also host a free webinar (register here) on Cleveland’s civil rights movement at noon on Feb. 21 with Nishani Frazier, an associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Kansas.
Seven key sites – and growing
The first Cleveland Civil Rights Trail marker arose in 2021 on a pole outside Cory United Methodist Church on East 105th St. Over the decades, Cory has hosted leading civil rights crusaders, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X and, several times, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It also frequently hosted and led a local civil rights group called the United Freedom Movement.
The trail’s second marker was raised last June 2022 outside Cleveland City Hall to honor the groundbreaking 1967 election of Carl Stokes, the first African American mayor of a large American city.
A third marker on a median in the Ludlow neighborhood (which straddles Cleveland and Shaker Heights) commemorates a pioneering integration drive that followed the 1956 bombing of a Black-owned home there. Neighborhood organizations made controversial but nationally influential efforts to welcome Black residents and maintain integration through outreach and loans to whites, whom real estate agents and banks discouraged from buying in the neighborhood.
Susan Rotatori, head of the Ludlow Community Association, said neighbors are proud to have their efforts recognized. “That will be in history with the marker forever.”
The restoration society aims to raise seven more markers by 2025. The sites announced so far are Glenville High School, Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, the Hough neighborhood, and Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. The churches and school all hosted King and helped lead the civil rights movement here.
At Glenville High in 1966, King launched his “Rise Up!” campaign. “Every Black person in this country must rise up and say, ‘I’m somebody,” he declared, urging listeners to “desegregate their minds.”
At Greater Abyssinia, Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness hosted King and organized his fellow Black ministers in town to stump for Stokes. He later served as councilman, mayoral aide, and chair of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.
Caviness has pastored his church for 62 years. Asked about its place on the trail, he said, “We’re proud of that, man. We love it.” He hopes the marker will not just teach the public about yesterday’s work toward equality but inspire much-needed follow-up today, when minority rights are under new attacks.
Olivet’s former pastor, Rev. Odie Hoover, Jr., hosted King and attended the latter’s Nobel Peace Prize induction in Norway. Hoover’s successor, Rev. Otis Moss Jr., had been King’s co-pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Cincinnati. In Cleveland, Moss promoted housing, health care, education, and more.
CRS plans to announce an eighth site this month, preserving the story of yet another historic location. Dedicating a marker last October in the Ludlow neighborhood of Cleveland and Shaker Heights, Kathleen Crowther, CRS president, explained why the organization is committed to the trail. “Our cultural heritage is represented in landmark buildings, yes, of course, but it’s also represented in our community’s different traditions and histories.”
Sites chosen for the Cleveland Civil Rights Trail so far:
- Cory United Methodist Church (2021). 1117 East 105th St., Cleveland
- Carl Stokes (2022). Cleveland City Hall, 601 Lakeside Ave. E., Cleveland
- Ludlow Community Association (2022). Hampton Road median near 2970 Hampton Road, Cleveland
- Glenville High School (forthcoming)
- Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church (forthcoming)
- Olivet Institutional Baptist Church (forthcoming)
- The Hough uprising (forthcoming)
To request a marker or donate to the trail, contact Anne Doten, [email protected], 216-426-3109. For more information about the trail and the local civil rights movement, see clevelandcivilrightstrail.org.
This article is sponsored by Destination Cleveland.
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